Training for Mission: The Taglit-Birthright Israel Institute for Tour Educators


Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School

Scott Copeland 

Few educational frameworks can say without hyperbole that they have the potential to affect an entire generation. With 14 years of experience, and over 350,000 program participants from 64 Jewish communities around the world and Israel, Taglit-Birthright Israel can say that its impact is generation-wide. Taglit-Birthright Israel's scrupulous attention to logistical and educational standards, evaluation, and staff training is a big part of the reason behind the impact.

As part of Taglit-Birthright Israel's efforts to provide hundreds of thousands of young Jewish adults with a meaningful Israel experience, a new investment in staff training was launched in May 2012: the Taglit-Birthright Israel Institute for Tour Educators. Based on the assumption that Taglit-Birthright Israel is not conventional tourism, but rather an arena for Jewish living and experiential learning, the Institute for Tour Educators aims to cultivate a cadre of educators who have the sense of professional mission, the knowledge, and the tools to accompany Taglit-Birthright Israel participants on a crucial milestone experience in their lifelong Jewish journeys.  

Conventional tour guide training in Israel as overseen by the Ministry of Tourism is a nearly two-year program, including 650 hours of classroom work: archaeology, flora and fauna, history, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Zionism. An additional 85 days are devoted to study tours from Metulla to Eilat and from Hebron to Herzliya. Very little time is dedicated to methodology or pedagogy, and education is not part of the study program. The tour educators' course at the Taglit institute includes all of the elements of the Ministry of Tourism program, plus an additional 100 hours on topics related to Jewish life and identity, informal and experiential education, the vision and goals of Taglit-Birthright Israel, and teaching methodology, pedagogy, and facilitation skills. The conventional tour educators' course is grounded in transmitting information to the guide in training. Testing and exams are based on recalling and contextualizing that information. At the Taglit institute, we work to move beyond the information. Students—particularly educators in training—need to be able to articulate the significance of the information; to raise questions for their learners that are enriching, compelling, and relevant.

Additional training tracks are directed at veteran tour guides—a three week seminar and weeklong forum—to offer a new gateway to Taglit-Birthright Israel and focus on building the professional community. Taglit institute training includes a Shabbat program, as well as opportunities for students to observe Taglit groups in action, and discuss relevant best practices and professional challenges. In cooperation with a fine team of experienced educators at Jerusalem's renowned Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi Institute, 220 Taglit institute grads have entered the field over the past 18 months and are working with Taglit participants and groups. All Taglit-Birthright Israel organizers are obligated to hire institute-trained tour educators as part of the educational standards of Taglit.

Some of the central elements of training include:

• Recruitment and screening aimed at bringing to Taglit-Birthright Israel young Israelis who have both a practical background in informal education and are motivated by questions of identity exploration (these are typically graduates of the pre-military leadership programs; youth movement leaders; and former shlichim from the Jewish Agency, AVI CHAI, Hillel, summer camps, and other programs)

• Exposure to and understanding of the vision and standards that frame Taglit-Birthright Israel's educational platform, including work around the integrative educational model that stresses the role of the guide/educator as facilitator and enabler

• An emphasis on questions of personal and professional identity of the educator. Who am I as an Israeli and a Jew? How do I begin to formulate my own educational credo? What is our educational mission with Taglit participants?  

• An exposure to elements of Jewish life and community outside of Israel  

• Contending with key issues from the field—dealing with Israeli current events as education rather than advocacy; marking Shabbat as a time of Jewish meaning, celebration, and community building; emphasizing the importance of talking with and listening to Taglit participants, and encouraging participants to voice their issues, concerns, and questions about their own sense of being Jewish

• The acquisition of new skills, tools, and competencies in building staff, in facilitation, and in using varied implementations (games, music, text, etc.)

Our work does not only focus on the individual educator. The Taglit institute seeks to encourage an ethos of professional camaraderie. We think better and perform more competently when we work as a team, when we strive to cooperate and collaborate. If the typical tour guide is a lone wolf; the tour educator is a member of a professional pack. Alongside the Taglit Institute for Tour Educators, a similar training program is under consideration for the non-Israeli educational staff in North America. Such a program has the potential to grow a cadre of paraprofessionals for Taglit; people who can make their mark at Taglit and continue to contribute to Jewish education as volunteer leaders and professionals throughout the community. Our work is still at the beginning stages. We constantly incorporate feedback and evaluation to help us sharpen our work. We constantly examine and fine-tune our programs. Our plan is to create a new reality at Taglit, where a new generation of highly motivated, trained, and committed educators can contribute their efforts to the already fine work at Taglit and engage young Jewish adults with Israel and with Jewish life. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

Everything depends on the person who stands in front of the classroom. The teacher is not an automatic fountain from which intellectual beverages may be obtained. The teacher is either a witness or a stranger. To guide a pupil into the Promised Land, the teacher must have been there themselves. When asking themselves: Do I stand for what I teach? Do I believe what I say? The teacher must be able to answer in the affirmative. What we need more than anything else is not textbooks, but text people. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read: the text that they will never forget. (I Asked for Wonder, 1983, 62)

The Taglit-Birthright Israel Institute for Tour Educators strives to fulfill Heschel's words—to raise up educators who know that the essence of Taglit is the shared experiences of the participants with a staff poised to listen and prepared to continue the conversation.

Scott Copeland is the director of the Taglit-Birthright Israel Institute for Tour Educators and a veteran educator and tour guide. Scott was formerly connected with a number of key Israel education institutions, including: Archeological Seminars, Melitz, Mandel Institute for Educational Leadership, and Makom. He has taught Israel Seminar with the Neve Shecter overseas program, and has been a mentor and guest lecturer in The Davidson School's Kesher Hadash semester-in-Israel program